Contending With McMaster

March 9, 2021
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Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from “Book Review Roundtable: Surveying H.R. McMaster’s ‘Battlegrounds’from our sister publication, the Texas National Security Review. Be sure to check out the full roundtable.

H.R. McMaster, Battlegrounds: The Fight to Defend the Free World, (New York: HarperCollins, 2020)


During Donald Trump’s presidency, many senior national security roles came to resemble the post of Hogwarts’ Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher: The jobs were fraught with peril, most occupants came to regret their choice, and few lasted more than a year. The upside is that, though the Trump era has only just ended, a first batch of memoirs have come out from those who served in the Trump White House. H.R. McMaster’s Battlegrounds, however, is likely to prove frustrating to anyone hoping for substantive insights into the Trump administration. As McMaster himself notes, despite his role as national security adviser during the critical first two years of the Trump presidency, this book isn’t a tell-all. Instead, he presents a curiously sanitized policy process, one in which the National Security Council staff plan and execute an idealized strategy largely without the involvement of the principal. The book thus ends up being more of a window into McMaster’s worldview and his criticisms of America’s post-Cold War foreign policy.

But this is not necessarily a bad thing. In stripping the Trump factor from foreign policy, Battlegrounds ultimately highlights the continuities between the various and disparate foreign policy personnel of the Trump years. The dark vision of the world that McMaster presents is increasingly shared by many Republican foreign policy hands. Although Trump’s own policy incoherence has tended to mask this fact, McMaster’s book suggests that another alternative to the liberal internationalist consensus in U.S. foreign policy is beginning to emerge. And while McMaster offers criticisms of liberal internationalism similar to those of many realists and restrainers, his proposed solutions represent a fundamentally and radically different approach to the world. Battlegrounds makes clear that the future of Republican foreign policy may be far more coherent — and far less restrained — than the last four years would suggest.

The Invisible President

In theatre, there is a conceit known as “the unseen character,” a person who is frequently referred to — and may even direct the course of events — yet who is never seen or heard directly by the audience. That Trump could play this character might seem surprising to anyone who’s lived through the last four years. After all, how could one write a book about the Trump administration without referencing the many tweets and high-profile media spats? From James Comey’s A Higher Loyalty to John Bolton’s The Room Where It Happened, the memoirs of the Trump era are mostly splashy tabloid bait, full of juicy anecdotes and incriminating details. There is undoubtedly some merit to avoiding this approach. As Carlos Lozada, a critic for the Washington Post, describes the genre, “Too many books of the Trump era are more knee-jerk than incisive … more fixated on calling out the daily transgressions of the man in the Oval Office — this is not normal! — than on assessing their impact.” In contrast, Battlegrounds is vaguely reminiscent of the classic British political satire Yes, Minister, in which the prime minister is never seen or heard, though his directives are a frequent point of concern for the other characters. By keeping the president offstage and unseen for most of the book, McMaster actually manages to present a book that is far more about foreign policy substance than about Trumpian scandal.



Yet, it also makes for an exceedingly strange entry in the canon of national security memoir. The memoirs of the great national security advisers of the past are typically as much about the personal relationship with the president as they are about policy. Some of this is undoubtedly the result of McMaster’s relatively distinctive role as an active-duty military officer in a civilian White House role. But Battlegrounds doesn’t just avoid salacious details. It effectively excises the president from foreign policy, replacing him with policy process — McMaster’s attempt to encourage his staff to think “more strategically” — and with lengthy anecdotes. Though the president occasionally makes an unexpected decision, he is effectively uninvolved in the policy debates to which McMaster devotes his energy. Indeed, even when McMaster disagrees with Trump’s choices, there is no real criticism, just euphemisms. The president is never mistaken, never unrealistic — he is merely receiving bad advice or is overly optimistic about the success of an endeavor. In other administrations, this would be dismissed as diplomatic phrasing. In the Trump administration, it leaves those who hoped that McMaster would, at a minimum, criticize the president on policy grounds disappointed.

One might plausibly read this stylistic choice as McMaster’s own attempt to remain nonpartisan. He notes early on in the book that “in the tradition of Gen. George C. Marshall … I had never even voted.” But there’s also a darker side to the offstage president of Battlegrounds: his role as an obstacle to be circumvented in achieving foreign policy outcomes. McMaster, after all, is not quite the impartial servant he suggests. He may not be partisan, but his foreign policy instincts differ from those of the president on a number of key issues. And in a number of places throughout the book, McMaster presents anecdotes of conversations with his counterparts overseas in which he discusses the best way to undermine Trump’s foreign policy views. In Afghanistan, for example, “[President Ashraf] Ghani knew that President Trump had been elected largely by people who did not understand what was at stake in that far-away place, and who were skeptical about what more Americans were calling ‘forever’ or endless wars. I asked Ghani to help the world understand.” In South Korea, McMaster warned Ambassador Chung Eui-yong “about the revival of American isolationism, as an activist element of President Trump’s political base. … [W]e would have to work hard to stay aligned due not only to the incompatibility of Trump’s and Moon’s domestic supporters.” McMaster presents himself as nobly ensuring American security by undermining what he considers to be dangerous impulses by the president. But we should be clear: His actions are undermining the will of a democratically elected president, his commander. There are many in Washington who would praise McMaster for being one of the “adults in the room” and reining in the president’s worst impulses. But that has always been a problematic and somewhat undemocratic argument. In keeping the president offstage, McMaster may have succeeded in keeping the book from political controversy. But he implies that the president’s decisions don’t matter when national security experts know better, a shallow — yet worrying — echo of Trump’s own “deep state” conspiracy theories.

On Assumptions 

It’s a cliché to say you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. But the cover of Battlegrounds leaves very little doubt about the themes one should expect to find within. A close up of McMaster in full dress uniform adorns the front, with worry lines and frown clearly visible on his face. In the absence of Trump, the book is mostly about McMaster’s own vision of the world, and — as the cover implies — it’s a dark vision of an unforgiving arena of competition between states.

On the face of it, the book’s core arguments are eminently reasonable: that American foreign policy has been characterized in recent years by hubris; that the country forgot that other states have agency; and that America suffers from a severe case of strategic narcissism, a concept that McMaster pulls from classical realist Hans Morgenthau. Though Morgenthau only really addressed narcissism in one coauthored paper later in life — it was to him less a strategic concept than a philosophical one — McMaster takes the general idea of preoccupation with self and runs with it, defining strategic narcissism as a tendency “to view the world only in relation to the United States.” This then implies the notion of “strategic empathy,” of seeking to understand what drives other states, whether it be interests, emotions, aspirations, or ideologies. American foreign policy in recent years, McMaster writes, has tended to be far more narcissistic than empathetic. A thorough reexamination of America’s core assumptions about the world is therefore needed. And certainly, these criticisms of America’s choices during the unipolar moment are widely shared by many today. As McMaster puts it, American foreign policy in recent decades has been “frustrating because of the wide gap between the assumptions on which some policies and strategies were based and the reality of situations on the ground in places like Afghanistan and Iraq.” In contrast, Battlegrounds presents his attempt to push his team to “map the interests of rivals, adversaries, and enemies” and to “identify not only goals but also our assumptions.”

But it’s worth delving more deeply into what he thinks the core assumptions underlying U.S. foreign policy should be. McMaster assumes repeatedly, for example, that Americans are now living in what the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey, once described as “the most dangerous time in my lifetime.” He highlights a range of threats, from great-power competition to transnational terrorist organizations, hostile states in Iran and North Korea, and “new challenges to security… in complex arenas of competition from space to cyberspace to cyber-enabled information warfare to emerging disruptive technologies.” Indeed, McMaster frequently assumes the opposite of what most critics of the post-Cold War foreign policy consensus argue: He believes the world is less safe than heretofore assumed, the threats are more dangerous, and that America is beset by a number of rival states that are all out to get it. For him, the mistaken assumption in Afghanistan is not that America is overcommitted to a conflict that matters little for core national security. Instead, he argues that the mistake is that America is insufficiently committed and that “the results of striking a deal with the Taliban for the purpose of withdrawing from America’s longest war are likely to be far worse than a sustained commitment under a sound strategy.” On Iran, McMaster doesn’t believe that maximum pressure has failed, as many in Washington now do, or that it is time to try diplomacy. Instead, he argues that any attempt to negotiate with Iran is “divorced from the very nature of an Iranian regime that was fundamentally untrustworthy and hostile to the United States.”

In short, McMaster systematically overvalues coercion in international affairs and systematically undervalues diplomacy and other noncoercive tools of foreign policy. This is not precisely the same thing as over-militarization in foreign policy, though it shares some common symptoms. McMaster’s unwritten assumption is that that punishment and shows of force — whether sanctions, military strikes, or troop buildups — are more effective than cooperative diplomacy or compromise. Indeed, many of the core assumptions McMaster is challenging are those that underlie diplomacy, arms control, and deterrence. Just consider his argument on North Korea: “The assumption that Kim wants nuclear weapons only for deterrence is based on mirror imaging of an adversary that is not ‘like us’ and on simplistic historical analogies to nuclear deterrence against the Soviet Union during the Cold War.” McMaster may be correct that North Korea’s leaders are not rational, and that nuclear deterrence is impossible in this case, but he offers no evidence that this is the case. Prior variants of this argument — with regard to China, for example — have proven unfounded.

McMaster makes other assumptions, too: The book is full of lengthy discussions of the malicious acts of other nations, yet America rarely missteps. He is entirely correct that some critics of U.S. foreign policy — particularly on the left — are often too willing to attribute everything bad in the world to America. McMaster, however, commits the opposite sin. His commitment to an America that does no wrong is so absolute that he argues at one point that the United States shouldn’t bear any responsibility for the 1953 coup against Iranian leader Mohammed Mossadegh. Thus, for all his praise of empathy and historical understanding, the countries he describes in Battlegrounds are strangely uniform in their implacable opposition to the United States. And for all his opposition to strategic narcissism, he seems curiously unwilling to question whether the United States might sometimes be the problem. In one passage, McMaster describes one of his Pakistani counterparts, despairing that “[General Naveed Mukhtar] and other Pakistan army officers often sounded like they were diagnosing the situation in South Asia as dispassionate outside observers even as they drove much of the instability and violence that was the subject of their analysis.” That McMaster fails to consider that the same criticism might apply to the United States — that it is sometimes a purveyor of instability — is a key shortcoming of the book.

Through a Glass, Darkly 

Perhaps the most interesting part of Battlegrounds, salacious White House gossip aside, is that it expresses a very similar worldview to that of McMaster’s successor, Bolton, in The Room Where It Happened and to that found in Field of Fight, the coauthored tome by Michael Ledeen and Michael Flynn, McMaster’s short-lived predecessor as national security adviser. And it bears a strong resemblance to the 2017 National Security Strategy produced under McMaster’s leadership. Each of these documents — with varying levels of competence — takes aim at the post-Cold War foreign policy consensus. They dispute the idea that international law has any motivating force, that a rules-based order can tamp down the rise of other great powers, and that America can reshape the world in its own image. And they bemoan the shortsightedness of America’s policy toward China. For McMaster, for example, it was strategic narcissism of the highest order to assume that China would democratize. 

On the surface, many of these arguments sound similar to those made by realists or restrainers. But McMaster and the others also make arguments that are substantively distinct from the realists. They argue that deterrence and punishment are the only things that work against hostile states, to the extent of arguing that preemptive strikes — as in the assassination of Qassim Soleimani — may be necessary. And McMaster repeatedly emphasizes the importance of returning to “competition” with other states. In one anecdote recounting a conversation with Nikolai Patrushev, a senior Russian policymaker, he writes, “I thought it important to let Patrushev know that we were prepared to compete and would no longer be absent from the arena.” Though there’s no apparent end goal to the competition that McMaster, Bolton, and others prescribe, they argue that American participation in this competition is absolutely vital for American safety and security. As McMaster describes it, “when engaging with our Chinese counterparts, I explained our need to compete thoroughly as the best means of avoiding confrontation.” Throughout the book, he and others pin almost all their hopes to the success of militarized deterrence and coercion, ignoring the risks of the security dilemma. 

McMaster also takes explicit aim at realists and restrainers in his book, arguing that realists are “paragons of strategic narcissism due to the tendency to disregard the agency that the ‘other’ has over the future course of events.” That’s a curious criticism when so many realists and restrainers have repeatedly emphasized that other states have agency, explaining why purely coercive campaigns against regimes like Iran or Venezuela fail. But McMaster ignores these contributions and instead paints this group as blind to the world, obsessively focused only on predetermined policy goals. It’s a straw man argument that permeates the book’s discussion of realists, whom the author characterizes as being in an unholy alliance with the left, driven by “cash and appeals to emotion.” Consider McMaster’s assertion that:

many who are deeply skeptical of US military engagement abroad self-identify as part of a realist school of international relations. But realist is the wrong word. They get the world wrong because they start from an ideologically driven approach to US engagement with the world. They are against any form of military intervention abroad and for the withdrawal of US forces not only from the wars in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan, but also from the preponderance of other military commitments overseas.

Even if one resists the easy jab here — that McMaster worked for almost two years for a president who openly advocated for withdrawal from these conflicts — the portrayal of all realists and restrainers as idealists or peaceniks is problematic. To begin with, most restrainers wouldn’t argue that military action is never necessary. Meanwhile, most realists are explicitly nonideological in their approach to the world, relying instead on rational models that focus on states as the most important actors in international affairs. McMaster’s criticisms are particularly confusing given that he himself approvingly cites some great classical realist scholars and attempts to graft an ideological structure onto a dark and straightforwardly offensive realist view of the world.

Trumpism Post-Trump 

Putting aside these contradictions for a moment, Battlegrounds is less important for its own arguments than for what it says about the future of Republican foreign policy. By excising Trump — and his strange and incoherent foreign policy proclivities — from the picture, McMaster maps out a foreign policy approach that is far more competent and cohesive than anything seen from the Trump administration. In McMaster’s ideal world, America would be fighting “sustainable” long-term wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria; continuing to wage a global counter-terror campaign; deterring Iran and North Korea; building up the U.S. nuclear arsenal; further developing high-tech weapons and a missile defense capability; and competing with Russia and China not only in their respective regions but also in the Arctic, in cyberspace, with regard to new technology, in education, and on trade, where he contends that the U.S. government should be helping to decouple its economy from China. This vision is more consistent with the views of those who have advised Trump on foreign policy than with the president’s own views. This suggests that, at least among Republican foreign policy elites, there is some consensus on the future direction of U.S. foreign policy. That consensus is perhaps even less favorable to restraint than the existing liberal internationalist consensus. Battlegrounds suggests that the post-Trump Republican party is likely to look far more coherent on foreign policy, as hawkish elites who distanced themselves from the president’s strange whims (i.e., meeting with Kim Jong Un), and his more restrained tendencies (i.e., getting out of Afghanistan), reclaim the mainstream of Republican foreign policy. 

Perhaps more importantly, Battlegrounds suggests that the morass of criticism and think pieces that followed the 2016 election have now largely condensed into three possible visions of U.S. foreign policy, which we might describe as 1) liberal internationalism 2.0, 2) America First unilateralism, and 3) restraint (broadly construed). The first is in many ways a continuation of the post-Cold War liberal internationalist consensus, albeit with some modifications around the edges to rein in the worst of the excesses. The latter two are both challenges to that consensus. Both these challenges draw from the same set of core criticisms about America’s post-Cold War choices in foreign policy: that there was too much optimism about America’s ability to reshape world politics, too much focus on ideology, too little focus on the agency of other countries, and a foolish assumption that the unipolar moment would last forever. But where they differ is in their policy responses. The “restraint” camp as broadly construed — a motley coalition of realists, restrainers, antiwar progressives, paleoconservatives, and libertarians — views America’s foreign policy failures as a reason to reevaluate America’s core interests, prioritize among them, and dial down the country’s military presence overseas in favor of diplomacy and engagement. McMaster and those around him — the America Firsters — instead take these failures as an indication that America should lean in, committing ever more resources to “competing” in every arena of influence for an unknown and potentially unlimited period of time.

In recent years, Washington’s policy community has become, if not more friendly to, then at least more cognizant of the arguments for restraint in U.S. foreign policy. But it has not yet started to grapple effectively with the America First criticism of liberal internationalism, which has thus far been obscured by its association with a mercurial president. Indeed, many of the more extreme parts of this unilateralist approach to the world — such as trade wars with China or the use of secondary sanctions on allies — have been so far taken mostly as evidence of Trump’s personal eccentricity. But McMaster’s worldview is increasingly mainstream among Republican foreign policy elites. Washington needs to take his view more seriously. It’s a potentially dangerous path: McMaster’s dark vision of a world where “competition” and threat are endless could well open the door for an increasingly illiberal, unilateral, and militaristic U.S. foreign policy.



Emma Ashford is a senior fellow with the New American Engagement Initiative in the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council.

Image: U.S. Air Force (Photo by Staff Sgt. Joel Pfiester)